Sheet Music Review
Wynn-Anne Rossi may well be a new name to UK readers, but in the US she is a well known as a composer and dynamic educator. Commissions include works sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Composers Forum and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. She has over 70 piano publications, as well as original repertoire including orchestral and vocal works.
Wynn-Anne’s passion for promoting creativity in young musicians is reflected in her choice of publications with Alfred Music, which include the ’Musica Latina’ series of four repertoire and four duet books.
Her latest publications with Alfred are a series of four new solo piano books under the title Jazzin’ Americana, the subject of this review.
Introducing the series, Wynn-Anne writes:
“This unique series is a personal journey through the jazz genre, honouring the history, diverse styles, and fabulous musicians who made this music great. While delving into appealing jazz styles, the performer will become familiar with the names of famous musicians like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. From blues to bebop to boogie and rock, American jazz has made its profound mark on the music of the world.
Each piece is enhanced by interesting facts to awaken curiosity and broaden music education. Please encourage additional jazz listening and research as students navigate through the different styles. Rhythm workshops are included to help students count, then ‘feel’ tricky jazz rhythms.”
The presentation of the four books is in typical Alfred Music house style. UK readers may be familiar with Martha Meir’s excellent Jazz, Rags & Blues series, published with a similar format and quality. And those who enjoy those books will almost certainly love these just as well.
After the contents page (which includes the introduction quoted from above) each of the four Jazzin’ Americana books gets straight to the pieces.
Each piece has a simple rhythm workout printed in a box at the top of the page, as well as a two-to-three-sentence introduction putting the piece into its historical context. By way of example, the very first piece in Jazzin’ Americana is introduced with the text:
“Ragtime was a predecessor to early jazz. Composers like pianist Scott Joplin helped set the scene with playful, syncopated melodies. These melodies, combined with a march-like beat in the left hand, created a ‘ragged’ rhythm and gave birth to the genre’s name.”
For your interest, here is a link to a PDF of that page, courtesy of the publisher’s site, which will give you a full idea of the presentation.
The pieces themselves are engraved in a generously-sized and spaced presentation that has the utmost clarity. Most pieces take up three pages, but in the first book several are two pages, while by the final book some extend to four. Sensible fingering – which is neither excessive nor too limited – is provided throughout.
In terms of level, the four books are described as follows:
- Jazzin’ Americana 1: Late Elementary
- Jazzin’ Americana 2: Early Intermediate
- Jazzin’ Americana 3: Intermediate
- Jazzin’ Americana 4: Late Intermediate
For fellow UK readers scratching their heads at these descriptions, a reminder that in the US students tend not to follow the assessment levels of ABRSM or other international benchmarks; but the four books range loosely from Grades 3-6, and teachers may want to dip into one book between each grade.
It’s worth noting here that there is no audio material to accompany the series, either in the form of an included CD or online download. This is slightly ironic given the nature of jazz learning and transmission, and is rather a pity because so much of the groove, emphasis and nuance of jazz playing benefits from aural demonstration.
That said, when using these books with a student I would at least encourage them to listen to recorded examples of the great jazz musicians mentioned throughout the series. This in itself will be a huge benefit for accurate learning and for developing an authentic jazz musicianship.
The Four Books
The first Jazzin’ Americana book includes nine pieces, and it’s clear from the titles, introductory text and music that they are intended as pastiches (in the best sense!) of great American jazz musicians and composers. Specifically, Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck, Ahmad Jamal, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, with some more generic pieces composed in the style of early blues, boogie-woogie and 1950s Rock ’n’ Roll.
I’m guessing that many players and teachers will be as enthusiastic as I am to have a collection of pieces at around Grade 3 level which includes such a diverse and exciting range of styles.
But perhaps some will wonder whether these pieces rise above mere cliché or not. That is a more difficult question to answer, because players approaching these musical styles need to gain a familiarity with the standard tropes and vamps required by each. I would say that for those who have other collections of pieces which cover similar territory, the Charlie Parker inspired Bird in the Bebop and Ahmad Jamal -like Jazzy Classic are stand-out pieces here.
In the second Jazzin’ Americana book, however, I feel Wynn-Anne’s original creativity is more to the fore. Here the nine pieces evoke the music of (among others) African cotton-pickers, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and the swing era.
This is a really strong collection, with showcase pieces which range from the rip-roaring Ellington-inspired Jungle Jazz to the more subdued tones of Miles of Mixolydian (a clever title for a Miles Davis pastiche) and Yellow Basket for Ella (Fitzgerald).
By the third Jazzin’ Americana book the level is at around Grade 5, which allows the composer growing scope for stylish piano writing.
The Billy Holiday-infused Empress of the Blues is a lovely start to the set, which also includes music inspired by “Jelly Roll” Morton, Louis Armstrong (again), and pieces in Bossa-nova (loosely), Zydeco and Boogie styles. My favourite from this collection of eight pieces is the Tribute to Tatum, one of those joyful pieces that is easier than it sounds as it evokes the virtuosity of the great pianist Art Tatum.
And finally, Jazzin’ Americana book four, which begins with Stride into Wally’s, named for the legendary Wally’s Café in Boston, where stride piano playing was so often to be heard. Gypsy Jazz Musette doffs a cap to the great Django Reinhardt, while the harmonically intoxicating Monk Meditation evokes the spirit of Thelonius himself.
Other pieces within this collection (of seven) name-check Horace Silver and Dizzy Gillespie. A particular highlight is the beautiful Lady of the Day, which doesn’t quite remind me of Billie Holiday (who is referred in the intro) but is no less a lovely piece which I believe players at this level will thoroughly enjoy.
I’ve spent a happy morning playing through the pieces in all four of the Jazzin’ Americana books, and really like them. And I can certainly anticipate that I will enjoy dipping into these pieces with students who have an interest in jazz.
There is great potential here to inspire a better knowledge of jazz history and playing styles, and I particularly like the way that each piece whets the appetite for exploring more deeply the music of the great players of the American heritage.
Given the scale of the series – with 33 pieces in all – I would have liked to see one or two other giants of jazz included, such as Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau for example. And of course the scope of the series doesn’t incorporate the giants of the European Jazz heritage.
But while the series can’t be considered an entirely representative overview of jazz music, it certainly offers a wonderful selection of catchy, appealing and well written new pieces which I am sure will be enjoyed by many!
Jazzin’ Americana is a great series, and I very warmly recommend it.